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GetReligion

Religion Reporting in India

By Vishal Arora

Preface

The word diversity best describes India. In his book The Argumentative Indian, India’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen says, “India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints.” [1]

The diversity offers excellent potential for reporting religion, but it also poses many challenges, as realities change from rural to urban areas, from one state to another, and even from one region to another within a state. Given that India has 28 states and six Union territories, one can understand how diverse the realities must be. [2]

It would be safe to assume that reporting of religion and religion-related issues in such a situation will not be homogeneous by any stretch of imagination. An endeavour to identify blanket trends will be a futile exercise. Therefore, my primary focus is the English national media — whose reach is a little lower than the Hindi media, [3] though I have also made an attempt to uncover a few common features in the Hindi media.

1. Introduction

Although a majority of the 1 billion-plus population of India is Hindu, there is a sizeable number of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and people from other religions — even atheists, who have coexisted with the people belonging to the “majority” religion for centuries.

In The Argumentative Indian, Sen points out that while most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burned at the stake for heresy, in India the 16th-century Mogul emperor Akbar was declaring, “No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”

Today, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan. In addition, about 2.2 million people in India follow the Bahá’í faith, forming the largest community of Bahá’ís in the world [4]. India is also home to followers of Zoroastrianism, who in India are called Parsis [5]. They represent about 0.006 percent of the total population, with a concentration in and around the city of Mumbai, the capital of the western state of Maharashtra.

1.1 Demographic Complexities

According to the 2001 Census of the Government of India, this is the religious population of the country:


Religion Population Percentage
All 1,028,610,328 100
Hindus 827,578,868 80.456
Muslims 138,188,240 13.434
Christians 24,080,016 2.341
Sikhs 19,215,730 1.868
Buddhists 7,955,207 0.773
Jains 4,225,053 0.41
Others 6,639,626 0.645
Not stated 727,588 0.07

These statistics do not give the extent of demographic diversity in the country, as the presence of religious minorities differ from state to state, and in some states it even exceeds the number of Hindus. In fact, the government is presently contemplating a Constitutional amendment to define minorities statewise, rather than at the national level — a move that many rights groups are opposing. [6]

Christians account for 64.58 percent, 85.73 percent 87.47 percent in the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland respectively (See Chart 1). Besides, in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Kerala and Manipur, they comprise 10.29 percent, 29.86 percent, 19.32 percent, and 34.11 percent of the total populations respectively — much higher than the national average.

Though Muslims do not form a majority in any state, there are Muslim-dominated regions within some states — for instance, the Kashmir valley in the northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, the number of Muslims is more than the national average in some states, including Assam (28.43 percent), Kerala (23.33 percent), Uttar Pradesh (17.33 percent) and West Bengal (23.61 percent). [7]

1.2. Indian Religiosity

Religion plays a key role in the lives of Indians. Rituals, worship, and other religious activities form a very prominent part in the daily life of an individual. Religion also organises social life, especially in rural parts of the country.

India hosts numerous pilgrimage sites for almost all religions. Most festivals are celebrated by people of all communities, irrespective of which religions these festivals belong to.

Unlike the West, where a drift away from religious orthodoxy is a visible trend, the people in India are generally drawing closer to traditions in search of their identities in the wake of globalization.

The number of Hindu gurus (and of their followers) is increasing. The number of templegoers is also on the rise. Even in the national capital, Delhi, young and old Hindus can be seen going to a temple barefoot and carrying a bowl of milk as part of a religious ritual. People prostrating themselves in front of a temple on a busy road has also become commonplace. Generally speaking, people in smaller cities and rural places are more religious than in bigger cities.

Sections of the upper middle class are also drawing closer to materialism and the New Age, like in the West. However, it must be acknowledged here that Hinduism is conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, and not a “religion” as understood in the West, and therefore the diversity within it is so immense that any generalization is extremely difficult. [8]

Indian Muslims and Christians too have started asserting their religious identities, perhaps as a reaction to the rise of Hindu extremism, because Muslims are seen with suspicion in the wake of the “Global War against Terrorism.” On Fridays, Muslims can be seen kneeling publicly on roadsides or in parks to offer “Namaz.” Similarly, Christians too can easily be identified as most of them owning a car will either have a cross hanging in the car or a Christian sticker on the back screen.

There are at least 14 religion channels in India, and the number is growing by the year.

1.3. The Centrality of Religion in Indian Politics

Religion also dominates the Indian political scene. India’s numerous political parties can broadly be divided into two categories: “secular” and “communal.”

Secularism, according to the Indian definition of the word, does not mean complete detachment from religion, but fair and equal treatment of all religions and religious freedom to all communities. On the other hand, “communalism” means religious sectarianism or creating, promoting and highlighting the clash of worldly interests among religious communities, mainly between minorities and the “majority.”

Parties in India’s ruling alliance, United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is led by the Indian National Congress (also known as the Congress Party), are by and large considered secular, while some of the allies of the opposition coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose leader is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are known to be communal in their ideologies — the BJP is regarded as the principal communal party. Communist parties, most of which support the UPA from outside, are also secular.

Both secular and communal parties have managed to influence the public opinion to such an extent that if you know which party a person votes for, you can safely assume what his or her opinion will be on a plethora of religion-related issues facing the country.

1.4. Print and Electronic Media in India

There are close to 6,000 daily newspapers published in over 100 languages, in addition to more than 40 domestic news agencies in the country. The reach of the press medium (dailies and magazines combined) has increased from 216 million to 222 million during the last year. The number of readers in rural India (110 million) is now roughly equal to that in urban India (112 million).

Similarly, there are more than 100 TV channels, and the number of news channels is growing. Satellite TV has grown considerably in reach — from 207 million watching in an average week in 2005 to as many as 230 million in 2006 — further expanding its lead over the number of readers. [9]

2. Religion-Related Political Issues in Indian Media

The fact that religion and issues related to it take center stage in politics is naturally reflected in the mainstream media, both electronic and print. Secularism, communalism, “saffronization” of education, quota, Dalits, caste conflicts, anti-conversion laws, conversion, “reconversion,” uniform civil code, adoption rights, and “Ram Janmabhoomi” are a few words that regularly feature in the media.

The numerous issues surrounding these words can be classified into three broad categories: “caste system” political ideologies, and legislation, though there may be many overlaps.

2.1. An Oppressive ‘Caste System’

The term “Dalit” appears daily in Indian newspapers and news channels in different contexts. Dalits are “untouchables” who have traditionally occupied the lowest place in the caste system of Hinduism. They are classified in the Indian Constitution as “Scheduled Castes.” They were called “untouchables” because they were considered to be outside the confines of caste by so-called high-caste Hindu Brahmins, the priestly class, thousands of years ago. Their impurity derived from their traditional occupations, such as the taking of life and the treatment of bodily effluvia.

India’s Dalits remain on the margins of society and face discrimination. Atrocities on Dalits meted out by higher-caste Hindus are commonplace in the country, mainly in rural areas. There are also instances of Dalits being killed if they dare to enter a Hindu temple or marry a person from a “higher caste” — although there is a special law with stringent punitive provisions to protect Dalits from atrocities. The extent of the discrimination can be ascertained with a recent development in the Jagannath Temple in Kendrapara district of Orissa state early this year. Sections of temple devotees went on a “strike unto death” when Dalits were allowed to enter the temple by an order of the Orissa High Court in November 2006. The tussle was finally over after a compromise was reached between the higher-caste devotees and Dalits in July 2007. [10]

The caste-based problem is so pervasive that it has even seeped into the psyche of other religious communities. In the western state of Goa, for example, sections of the Catholic community whose ancestors converted to Christianity through Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century still assert their Brahmin background. In the matrimonial sections of regional newspapers, one can invariably find advertisements for a groom or bridegroom by a person who self-identifies as a “Roman Catholic Brahmin.” [11]

It may be surprising, but there are caste-related problems also in Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim communities in India, though doctrinally there is no caste hierarchy in these religions. [12]

2.1. (a). Affirmative Action for Dalits and Others

Article 15(4) of the Constitution provides for positive discrimination in the nature of special provisions for the benefit of certain marginalised sections of the Indian society, of which Dalits and Tribals form a major portion. The term “tribals” or “Scheduled Tribes” (STs), as given in the Constitution, refers to the aboriginal people of India. About 16 percent of India’s population is Dalit, and 8 percent is Tribal.

Based on this provision, 27 percent of government jobs and admissions in educational institutions run or aided by the government have been “reserved” for SCs and STs. This reservation is referred to as a “quota” in the newspapers.

The UPA government recently proposed an additional 27 percent “quota” for some more backward castes, classified as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs), for their uplift. This is being fought tooth and nail by the opposition NDA, mainly through its leader, the BJP, saying it is “murder of merit” and appeasement of caste communities. A case about this proposal is also pending before the Supreme Court of India. [13]

Some states, mainly in the south, are planning to provide a quota for members of religious minority communities, mainly Muslims, in institutions run by the state government and in state government jobs — in addition to Dalits and Tribals. [14]

2.1. (b). Affirmative Action and Dalits from Non-Hindu Religions

In 2004, the Supreme Court of India accepted a plea for extension of affirmative action rights to Dalits who have converted to Christianity or Islam, which revived the debate whether only Hindu Dalits are eligible for affirmative action. The case is still pending in the apex court. [15]

A clause in the Constitution, known as the Presidential Order of 1950, says that only Hindu Dalits are entitled to reservation. Thus a Dalit who converts to Christianity or Islam loses the status of SC. The order, which was based on the premise that non-Hindu religions do not have any caste system, and therefore do not need any special privileges or protection, has been amended twice to include Dalits from Sikh (in 1956) and Buddhist (in 1990) faiths in affirmative action benefits. Christians say if Dalits from Sikh and Buddhist backgrounds can be part of the reservation, why should Dalit Christians be excluded? Besides, sections of Christians also openly acknowledge that even in some churches Dalit converts are discriminated against.

Right-wing parties, mainly the BJP, and Hindu extremist organisations have opposed the demand of Dalit Christians, arguing that such a move would encourage religious conversions of Hindu Dalits, as the exclusion of Dalit converts from SC lists acted as a deterrent.

Approximately 65 percent of Christians in India are believed to be Dalits. [16]

2.2 Issues Related to Political Ideologies

Although India chose to be a secular nation when the Constitution was adopted by national leaders and thinkers of the time in 1950, there have been continual and aggressive efforts to create a “Hindu nation” and oppose secularism.

2.2. (a). Secular State or Hindu Nation?

Hindu nation is the dream of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the parent organisation of a plethora of Hindu extremist groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Forum or VHP) and Bajrang Dal, VHP’s youth wing, which are collectively referred to as Sangh Parivar by the Indian media [17]. The BJP is its political wing. [18]

The RSS, registered as a cultural and charitable organization, believes in and promotes “Hindutva,” a Hindu nationalistic ideology that proposes a nation ruled by those whose ancestors were born in India and who belong to religions that originated here, namely Hinduism and its offshoots. It allows religious minorities to live in the country, but in subordination to the majority community.

Hindutva (meaning “Hinduness”) is a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923 through a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu,” which claimed that the Indian subcontinent is the homeland of Hindus while Christians and Muslims, being “outsiders,” are its enemies. [19]

The Sangh Parivar allegedly indulges in making anti-religious minority statements, launching violent attacks on members of minority communities, training its supporters in handling arms, and organizing anti-minority hate campaigns. [20] Through its political wing BJP, it has enacted anti-conversion laws in some of the states it rules and sought to amend school textbooks to promote its ideology. Whenever any move related to these activities is made by the RSS, it makes a headline.

2.2. (b). School Books and Hindu Nationalism

In 2000, the BJP-led NDA federal government revised social-science textbooks of the National Curriculum Framework for School Education evolved by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The move was called “Saffronization of education” (the color saffron is associated with Hindu religion in India). This was allegedly done to condition the thought process of children in favor of Hindu nationalism and to drive a wedge between the majority community and the minorities of the country. [21]

When the Congress party-led UPA came into power, it brought in the new National Curriculum Framework for School Education 2005.

However, some states ruled by the BJP rejected the new framework and introduced other textbooks. For instance, the BJP in Rajasthan state introduced a Class X Social Sciences book prepared by a state body. The book equates “Indianness” with the Hindu identity and excludes Muslims and other communities.

Some of the objectionable content includes portrayal of India as superior to other countries; description of Hindu deity figures, religious festivals, and places of pilgrimage covering three-fourths of the book; identification of a Muslim community “pampered by both Pakistan and India” as India’s enemy and a comment that the growth in population of this community needs to be monitored closely. [22]

2.2. (c). Religious Conversions: Boon or Bane?

The issue of religious conversions has been a subject of debate for a very long time. It continues to surface at the national level from time to time.

For instance, in 1994, Arun Shourie (a BJP leader and former editor of The Indian Express newspaper) brought out a book, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas (ASA Publication, New Delhi), which took the issue to new heights.

The issue surfaced at the national level again a few years later after another BJP leader and the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, called for a national debate on conversion in the wake of a spate of anti-Christian attacks by Hindu extremist groups in Dangs district of Gujarat state from December 25, 1998, to January 3, 1999. Vajpayee once again called for a national debate on conversions after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young children were burned alive by a mob led by a Hindu fundamentalist, Dara Singh, in Orissa state on January 22, 1999. [23]

Hindutva sees Christianity as a Western religion, brought to India mainly under British colonial rule in the 19th century. Under this policy, the anti-British sentiments held by many Hindus are extended towards the whole Christian community. The RSS says India’s minorities need be “Indianized.” [24]

The RSS also claims that missionaries are part of an international conspiracy to convert and overtake India. It alleges that Western missionaries use material bribes or force to convert poor and illiterate people.

When the Sangh Parivar fails to prove its claims of conversion by the use of force, fraud and allurement, it quotes some Hindu sages who were opposed to even voluntary conversion. They argued that conversion to other religions, mainly Christianity, is destructive to the Indian culture. In their view, Indian culture is so rooted in Hinduism that one cannot exist without the other.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati, an eminent Hindu philosopher and the founder of the Arsha Vidya Hindu study centers in the U.S., believes every conversion is an “act of violence.” In an open letter to Pope John Paul II in 1999, Saraswati said conversion would ultimately lead to the destruction of the entire Indian culture. “Religion and culture are not often separable,” he wrote. “This is especially true of the Hindu religious tradition. [For instance,] the greeting word, namaste, is an expression of culture as well as religion.”

He also referred to the bindi, a mark worn by women. “Even though a . . . mark on the forehead is purely religious, it is looked upon as an integral part of Hindu culture.” He said culture often disintegrated after conversion, “leaving only dead monuments.” In other words, some Christian converts still followed cultural traditions but abandoned the religious meaning behind these traditions. [25]

2.2. (d). Is ‘Reconversion’ Conversion or Mere ‘Homecoming’?

Hindu nationalists oppose Christian conversion on the one hand, but organize “reconversion” of Christian converts on the other, maintaining that it is mere “homecoming.”

Newspapers and local regional news channels report on reconversion of converts to Hinduism from time to time. Reconversions normally take place en masse in special ceremonies organised by Sangh Parivar groups, mainly the VHP.

The reconversion movement was launched by Dayanand Saraswati, who founded a Hindu reformist organisation known as the Arya Samaj in 1875 during the British rule in India. Christened as “Shuddhi” (purification), the movement aimed at bringing back those who had converted to Islam or Christianity, mainly the former, back to Hinduism. [26]

Post-independence, Raja Vijay Bhushan Singh Judeo, the last king of Jashpur, which is now a district in Chhattisgarh state, adopted the Arya Samaj model to reconvert tribal people in the region in 1952. Judeo termed it as “Ghar Vapsi” (Homecoming).

In 1990s, Judeo’s son Dilip Singh Judeo, former federal minister under the erstwhile BJP-ruled coalition government and presently a member of parliament, gave a new thrust to the movement.

The movement was later extended to other parts of the country, mainly Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and Maharashtra states, by Sangh Parivar organisations.

In 1999, Judeo claimed that he had reconverted at least 165,000 Christians in several tribal areas. [27] It is estimated that around 2,300 people were reconverted to Hinduism in 2006. [28]

2.2. (e). Spontaneous Clashes, or Organized Pogroms?

Although religion-related violence has been a part of India’s history, its incidence with focus on religious minorities — mainly Muslims and Christians — suddenly rose to new heights after the BJP came into power at the national level in 1998.

According to the figures of India’s home or internal ministry vis-à-vis anti-Christian attacks, between 1950 and 1998 there were only 50 recorded cases. However, the number shot to 100 in the year 2000 and from 2001 to 2005 at least 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks were reported every year.

However, it is the Muslims who face the brunt of communal violence in the country. In Gujarat state in March 2002, members of the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal led the killing of more than 2,000 Muslims — according to unofficial counts given by rights groups — after a few VHP workers were killed in a train fire in Godhra district, which the VHP claimed was an act of terrorism by Muslims.

Although the BJP-led NDA lost the 2004 general elections and the UPA, led by the “pro-minorities” Congress Party, formed the government, the incidence of attacks on minorities continued to increase. According to the 2005-2006 annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs, 779 incidents of religious identity-related violence were reported in 2005 in which 124 people were killed and 2,066 injured. In 2003, during the BJP regime, 711 such incidents occurred, claiming 193 lives and injuring 2,261 people.

A visible crisis in the RSS and the BJP — after the latter’s defeat in the 2004 general elections — is compelling them to fully exploit the issues of Christian conversions and “Islamic terrorism” so as to revive their pet slogan, “Hinduism is under threat.” [29]

Most anti-minority attacks are organised by the Sangh Parivar [30] under these two pretexts, and attributed to public anger against the members of the minorities, suggesting that it is not possible for different religions to coexist peacefully — as Samuel Huntington sought to prove in The Clash of Civilizations.

It must be acknowledged that Christians and Muslims are not the only communities that face religious persecution in India. For instance, sections of Hindu pundits in Kashmir region in Jammu and Kashmir state are also victims of discrimination and harassment.

2.2. (f). ‘Ram Mandir’ or ‘Babri Masjid’?

On December 6, 1992, VHP extremists demolished , Babri Mosque, which was built in the 16th century, in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state, and installed an idol of the Hindu god Rama. The demolition was the culmination of BJP leader L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra (chariot rally) to the city, to remind Hindus of the claim that the spot where the mosque stands is Ram Janmabhoomi, the birthplace of Rama. The Sangh Parivar had been making the claim since 1984 that the Muslim emperor Babur had demolished a temple of Rama to construct the mosque, and that the “historical injustice” must be reversed, allegedly in an attempt to polarize voters along religious lines.

An enquiry commission is investigating the charges against top BJP politicians, including Advani, in connection with the demolition of the mosque.

The demolition of the mosque, which was symbolic of the creation of a Hindu nation, led to numerous incidents of communal violence in different parts of the country. It also resulted in polarization of sections of the people along religious lines. Political analysts attribute the success of the BJP in forming the federal government, for the first time in 1998, to this communal division.

Neither Muslims nor Hindus are allowed to worship in the mosque/temple site, but from time to time, mainly at the time of elections, the BJP reassures Hindus of its promise to give them “back” the “Ram Mandir” (Temple of Rama). [31]

2.3 Legislative Issues

Issues related to legislations regulating religion or civil affairs of religious communities also feature in the media regularly.

2.3. (a). Personal Laws or a Uniform Civil Code?

India has personal laws, for Hindus, Muslims and Christians, dealing with civil matters, such as marriage, divorce, and succession — though subjection to these laws is optional in certain matters, as there are also special civil laws meant for people of all communities. However, Article 44, found in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, which is not binding, says that India should endeavour to adopt a uniform civil code throughout the country. The objective of adopting a uniform code is national integration, according to the Supreme Court of India.

Many rights groups are in favor of a uniform code as they believe Muslim personal laws in particular are oppressive for women. The BJP too advocates for it, but seemingly with a different objective. It is believed that the party is pro-common code because it can make life difficult, especially for conservative Muslims and the clergy.

However, the Congress and other secular parties are of the opinion that adoption of a uniform code must be preceded by a national consensus, especially among the Muslim community.

Following a pro-common code observation by a judge of the Supreme Court of India in September 2003, the then President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, stated that law in the country had to be uniformly implemented, reviving the debate on a uniform civil code.

Issues arising out of the uniform civil code debate include what will be the content of the common code, in what areas of life will it apply and whether religious customs will be exempted from the common code. There is a fear among minority communities, mainly Muslims, that a common code will be misused to impose the principles of the majority religion on the minorities in the name of uniformity without respecting their beliefs. [32]

2.3. (b). Are Laws Banning Conversion Constitutionally Valid?

Although the Indian Constitution provides for religious freedom to all communities, India has seven states with special laws banning conversions. Commonly known as anti-conversion laws and christened as Freedom of Religion Acts, these laws have been implemented only in three states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa — while they remain on paper in Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

Many political analysts in India link the enactment of anti-conversion laws to the Hindu nationalistic agenda of the BJP, which supposedly uses these laws as a tool to institutionalise Hindutva, and to divide voters along religious lines before elections.

To defend the various anti-conversion laws, the BJP cites a Supreme Court’s 1977 judgment upholding the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrata Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) 1969 in the Reverend Stanislaus vs. State of Madhya Pradesh case. According to the verdict, the right to propagate does not include the right to convert another person to the former’s faith on the premise that the latter is equally entitled to the freedom of conscience. Not all in the legal fraternity agree with the judgment, though.

However, in 2006, two members of the National Commission for Minorities, Harcharan Singh Josh and Lama Chosphel Zotpa, acknowledged that Hindu extremists frequently invoke the anti-conversion law in the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh as a means of inciting mobs against Christians or having them arrested without evidence.

Christians also allege that these laws define “force,” “fraud” and “inducement” vaguely, which can restrict Christian work and allow anti-Christian forces to levy false charges on Christian workers. They also object that these laws require that all conversions be reported to the government, failing which both the priest and convert can be imprisoned or fined like criminals.

Although the law has been in force in some states for close to four decades, not even a single person has been convicted of wrongful conversion by any court thus far. [33]

2.3. (c). Can only Hindus Adopt Children in India?

In India, there is no provision for religious minorities to adopt children. Under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act (HAMA), 1956, only Hindus can adopt legally. Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews can only become the guardians under the Guardians and Wards Act (GAWA), 1890, which does not confer the status of a biologically born child.

However, as per the high court rulings of Kerala and Maharashtra states, Christians can apply for conversion of their guardianship to full adoption.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJA), 2000, does provide for the adoption of abandoned and abused children by all religious communities, but its implementation vis-à-vis adoption remains only on paper.

Under the JJA, only the Juvenile Justice Boards, after they are empowered to do so by way of notification in the official gazette, can facilitate adoptions. However, no state government has issued any notification to empower the boards to deal with adoption matters.

A case related to absence of legal provision for religious minorities to adopt children is pending before the Supreme Court of India. [34]

3. Trends in Reporting of Religion-Related Political Issues

Following are a few trends in the way various religion-related political issues are reported in the media.

3.1. Issues Related to the Muslim Community are Given Prominence

There are several factors behind why issues related to the Muslim community generate news stories on a daily basis.

Being the largest minority community in the country, Muslims get the attention of almost all major political parties. Consequently, the welfare of the community features in both national and state governments’ policies.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh appointed the “Rajinder Sachar Committee” to evaluate the social, economic and educational status of Muslims. The report was tabled in Parliament on November 30, 2006. Based on the report, the UPA government in January 2007 directed all banks to provide preferential loans to minorities. The government is contemplating more sops for Muslims based on the report. [35]

Besides, Muslims are the main target of the Sangh Parivar, which leads to numerous incidents of anti-Muslim violence.

Further, misdeeds of a very small section of the Muslim community, both in India and in other countries, have put the whole community under suspicion.

“We should not fix labels like Muslims or non-Muslims; it won’t help us in understanding the situation or dealing with it. A terrorist is a terrorist; he has no religion or community. As a Sikh, I understand the trauma (of being labeled),” said Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in the wake of the July 6 Glasgow bombings in Australia. The statement underlines the plight of a common Muslim. In fact, what the Muslim community in the West is facing post-9/11 has been a tragic experience of the community in India for the last few decades, thanks to the Sangh Parivar’s anti-Muslim campaign. [36]

3.2. Religious Dimensions of Political Issues are Not Explained Well

Most newspapers and TV news channels assume that the reader or viewer understands major issues facing the country, and therefore very few stories explain the background. This is true also in reporting of religion and religion-related issues. For instance, stories related to the Muslim and Dalit communities feature daily in the media, but without bringing out the religious dimensions of the issues. Perhaps, because the incidence of such stories is so high, explaining the background will inevitably become too repetitive.

However, foreign news agencies and organizations, such as the BBC, Reuters and AP, and Indian agencies that have foreign clientele, such as the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), do carry a background each time a religion-related story appears. In fact, IANS is among the very few Indian news organizations that have religion as a separate column.

3.3. Coverage of Communalism is Dynamic

It is unfortunate that for the Indian media the politics behind communalism is more important than its effects on society or the plight of the victims of communal violence.

Near the time of elections in states or at the national level, the coverage of Sangh Parivar’s communal activities or incidents of violence increases in the media, to highlight BJP’s attempts to divide people along religious lines. The rest of the time, only “large-scale” violence is reported, while many sectarian activities — which happen almost regularly — go unreported. Also, for the same reason, communal incidents are given greater coverage if the states where they take place are ruled by the BJP. The truth is that such incidents also take place in the states ruled by other parties.

In fact, the overall coverage of communal issues by the national media was much higher during the rule of the BJP-led NDA at the federal level, from 1998 to mid-2004. After the NDA lost the general election in May 2004, the coverage fell visibly.

To quote from my personal experience as an opinion writer, almost all my contributions were used by editors of national newspapers during BJP rule at the federal level till May 2004, after which rejection slips became routine. Most of the pieces I write for IANS are promptly picked up, but by regional newspapers of the states with the BJP government.

3.4. Biases are Becoming Less Affordable

In the third week of July 2007, The Indian Express sponsored a debate on whether excellent journalism is bad business. The editors and CEOs of The Times of India and The Hindustan Times newspapers and the IBN 7 Hindi news channel, which is in partnership with the U.S.-based CNN, publicly and explicitly admitted that for them becoming popular was a major factor in determining what is covered or what goes on air.

While the commercialization of the media must be criticized in light of the fact that it is considered one of the pillars of democracy, this development has made the reporting politically more neutral as a byproduct.

For example, Aaj Tak, considered the most popular news channel in Hindi with a pro-BJP slant, on April 29, 2007, showed a Christian pastor in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, being beaten up by Hindu extremists of the VHP. This was the first televised anti-Christian attack in the country. As a part of the coverage, the channel interviewed VHP leaders actually putting them to national shame. In contrast, the IBN 7 Hindi news channel, which is seen as anti-BJP, exposed corruption in sections of churches in India and aired the views of VHP leaders on the same. The channel showed some pastors accepting money for fake baptism and church membership certificates for admission purposes.

Another factor that has contributed to the reduction of political biases is the large number of news channels, newspapers and other means of mass communication, such as the Internet. As a result, any attempt to hide information from the readers or viewers or to twist the truth gets noticed and exposed when other newspapers, channels or websites show the truth — which is not affordable at this competitive stage.

In fact, news channels and newspapers are trying to beat each other in exposing failings of (or corruption in) the governments, irrespective of which party rules them.

3.5. Hate Campaigns against Minorities in Hindi Media

Reports on Christian missionaries indulging in “conversions” are commonplace in Hindi newspapers. The largest selling Dainik Jagran daily is the best example of this trend.

The local edition of Dainik Jagran in Himachal Pradesh state has been carrying provocative stories maligning the local Christian community for the last two years. It has been publishing a series of reports with the same headline, “Isaiyon ka gorakh dhanda” (Misdeeds of Christians), each time carrying a picture that shows a trishul (trident, one of the signs of a Hindu god) piercing the cross and stains of blood.

Several Dainik Jagran stories have alleged that Christians eat beef (the cow, considered a holy animal, is worshipped by Hindus) and “forcibly” convert Hindus, identifying Christian workers with their names. According to local evangelical Christian organisations, the extremists somehow get hold of their in-house magazines and misquote from these publications in the newspaper to support their allegations.

In fact, there is a feeling among local Christian workers that it is a result of the anti-Christian campaign in the local media that the Congress Party government in Himachal Pradesh Assembly passed an anti-conversion bill on December 30, 2006, alleging that “conversions” were happening, leading to law and order problems in the state, and the local people wanted a law to ban “forcible” conversions.

3.6. Internet Material is Quoted out of Context

An Islamist terrorist group on May 22, 2003, attacked Christians for the first time in Kashmir valley, a region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that is infamous for persistent bloodshed due to conflicts between India and Pakistan. The attack on a Christian school in Nai Basti in Anantnag district, Saint Luke’s Convent School, followed media reports alleging that some Christian groups were using money to convert Muslim youth in the Valley.

An opinion article in The Indian Express daily by BJP legislator Balbir K. Punj said: “The Vatican and allied Christian groups make no bones about using money as their primal leverage for ‘harvesting souls’ . . . And it’s no surprise that the Campus Crusade for Christ could afford to pay every fresh recruit in the Valley Rs.2,000 per month, plus perks and other expenses . . . Would this then not appear to be a more lucrative career choice for some Kashmiri Muslim youths — with hard cash which not even a terrorist organisation would have paid him for picking up an AK-56 against the Indian Army?” [37]

Such newspaper reports merely reflected what the three-part investigation report in The Indian Express, on April 6, 7 and 8 (2003), claimed. Titled “It’s conversion time in Valley,” the report stated, “At least a dozen Christian missions and churches based in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have sent evangelists to the Valley and are pumping in money through intermediaries based in New Delhi . . . Christian groups are putting the number of neo-converts at over 10,000 . . . and a Sunday Express [the Sunday edition of the newspaper] investigation confirms that conversions have been taking place regularly across the Valley.”

The newspaper’s idea to conduct the investigation originated out of a claim made in a website by the U.S. evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, which said that thousands of Muslim youth were accepting Christ in Kashmir.

Titled “Harassed Kashmir Christians reach out to discreet Muslims,” the article appeared on the website on September 9, 2002. “Thousands of mostly young Kashmiri Muslims, disillusioned by Islam, are seeking new ways to resolve Muslim-Hindu violence. . . . Wearied by violence, thousands are interested in the Prince of Peace,” it said.

BJP leader Punj also quoted from other Christian websites in his article. He said, “The World Evangelisation Research Centre estimates that it takes 700 times more money to baptise a convert in rich countries like Japan and Switzerland than in a poor country like Nepal.”

In February 2004, an 11-page cover story in the weekly Tehelka carried another article quoting from Christian websites. Titled “George Bush has a big conversion agenda for India,” the article was based on material available on the websites of the “AD 2000 and Beyond” movement and “Joshua Project” I and II.

The authors of the story sought to portray Christian missionary work in India as a “sinister and disturbing phenomenon” that should “ring alarm bells within the intelligence agencies in India.” They misunderstood, or maybe misused, the term “spying of the land” done by Joshua in the Old Testament, which Christians understand in a spiritual context, to mean spying in a political context. They alleged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was behind the preparation of data about postal codes of India by Christian missions.

4. How Religion is Reported in Media

Most English national newspapers in India have special religion columns, but there is no regular, dedicated program on religion in news channels. However, the news channels, mainly Hindi, do like to highlight people’s superstitions.

4.1. News Channels’ Obsession with People’s Superstitions

Hindi news channels’ obsession with spiritual healing and occultism is easily perceivable. Reporting on such practices features in almost every news bulletin. To give an example, the Aaj Tak channel on July 28 showed a “healer” stepping on young children to “heal” their diseases. The coverage lasted for more than 15 minutes, and the clip repeated several times in the day.

TV channels recently showed devotees of the Hindu god Ganesha in Delhi and other parts of the country offering milk to the idol, claiming that it was actually drinking. The coverage was shown the whole day after short intervals, and Hindu priests were interviewed on the possibility of an idol drinking milk. A few days later, the channels showed a clip of devotees of a temple on a seashore in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, drinking sea water, which had reportedly turned sweet. The devotees attributed the “miracle” to their god.

In fact, there are special half-hour programs on most Hindi channels showing the fame and claims of occultists claiming to have supernatural powers. English news channels also report on incidents related to people’s superstitions, but the frequency is way lower than their Hindi counterparts. From time to time, superstitions do figure in debates on English channels.

The media can blame the viewers for this trend, as such coverage does increase the TRP (Television Rating Points) of a channel, but it is also true that this is promoting superstitions among the people.

4.2. Lack of Serious Religion Articles in Newspapers

Most newspapers have special religion columns, but they lack serious content.

The Hindustan Times has a column called “Innervoice” which appears each weekday. “Innervoice” normally features articles on the philosophy of religion written mainly by the readers. Till last year, it carried contributions from popular Hindu gurus, clergy from different religions and freelance writers. Of late, the policy of the newspaper changed and the column was made open to readers’ contributions. The flip side of this policy is that it has brought down the quality of the articles.

On Saturdays, the newspaper features a special page on religion, “Faith on Saturday,” which carries four columns. These columns normally feature “entertaining” stories related to religion, like the beauty of the building of a temple, with almost half the page devoted to graphics. One does not find spiritual articles meant for followers of a religion, except some quotes from various scriptures on a topic.

The Times of India has a column, “Speaking Tree,” which appears from Monday to Saturday. The articles in this column mainly talk about Hindu scripture Vedas or Reiki, Feng Shui (an ancient Chinese practice of arranging space to achieve harmony with the environment), and Vastu Shastra (traditional Hindu canons of town planning and architecture), etc.

The daily also carries a special page on Sundays, “Mind Over Matter,” which normally features articles by famous New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra or those who advocate using spirituality for enhancing management skills and success in worldly matters.

The Hindu‘s column, “Religion,” also runs from Monday to Saturday. The newspaper has its own writers for this column, which invariably talks about Hinduism. The articles do not carry a byline. Only on festivals celebrated by other religions does it feature articles by clergy or writers from other religions.

Until recently, The Indian Express had a biweekly religion column “Faithline,” but as of now, it does not have any religion column.

5. Conclusion

The trends in the way religion and religion-related issues are reported in India give us at least three inferences:

First, the Indian media give substantial coverage to religion and religion-related issues, but highlighting mainly the negative and divisive aspects — which perhaps is the case in general reporting too. For instance, many religious communities are doing commendable social work, but their work rarely gets the attention it deserves. This is perhaps a result of most media being market-driven, rather than having an agenda, which compels them to use only stories that are potentially sensational and can sell.

Second, there is a decline in seriousness in the various religion columns in newspapers. Maybe this only reflects popular Indian religiosity, which seems to lack spiritual substance.

Third, generally speaking, the Indian media promote false spirituality. Perhaps the popular Indian gurus, who seem to be very shallow in the spirituality they preach and practice, are good in public relations skills and are aggressive evangelists.

It would be naïve to expect that the media leadership will take any initiative to deal with these predicaments, but it is possible for individual reporters and editors to do their bit in bridging the gaps in reporting religion as news.

[1] The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Amartya Sen (Penguin Books, 2005), p. ix.

[2] The National Capital Region, which includes Delhi, is counted neither as a state nor a Union territory.

[3] According to the National Readership Survey 2006, vernacular dailies have grown from 191.0 million readers to 203.6 million while English dailies have stagnated at around 21 million.

[4] Information on the Bahá’í faith is available at http://www.bahaindia.org.

[5] Information on the Parsi community in India can be found at http://www.culturopedia.com.

[6] To read the objections to the proposed definition of minorities, see http://www.countercurrents.org/comm-puniyani110407.htm.

[7] These figures are from the 1991 Census.

[8] A research paper, “Supreme Court of India, Hinduism and Hindutva,” by Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, discusses the complexity of defining Hinduism: http://tinyurl.com/35sopp.

[9] These figures are taken from the National Readership Survey 2006.

[10] A news story in The Times of India of July 30 describes the compromise reached between Dalits and higher-caste devotees: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/827382.cms.

[11] Some of the advertisements carrying the term “Roman Catholic Brahmin” appeared in the online edition of the O Herald newspaper: http://tinyurl.com/ypfef8.

[12] Yoginder Sikand, a writer on Muslim issues, explains the caste-based discrimination in the Indian Muslim community in his article, “Islam and Caste Inequality among Indian Muslims”: http://www.countercurrents.org/sikand150204.htm. Another article, “Killing caste by conversion,” by social scientist Deepankar Gupta deals with the caste system in Hinduism and other religions: http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2001/11/13/stories/05132523.htm.

[13] “Constitution bench to hear quota case,” The Hindustan Times, July 26, 2007, discusses a quota granted to the OBCs in the Supreme Court of India: http://tinyurl.com/39h3lp.

[14] “Minorities quota will turn reality,” The Hindu, July 6, 2007, discusses a proposed quota for religious minorities: http://www.hindu.com/2007/07/06/stories/2007070657600100.htm.

[15] “Spell out stand on quota for Dalit Christians: court,” The Hindu,July 20, 2007, gives the latest development in the case pending before the Supreme Court of India: http://www.hindu.com/2007/07/20/stories/2007072055861400.htm.

[16] According to an Indian Missions Association report of 1997.

[17] A report on the “Hindu Nation” agenda of the RSS is available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/655722.stm.

[18] “The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour” by A.G. Noorani explains the links between the RSS and the BJP.

[19] Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism by Jyotirmaya Sharma (New Delhi, Penguin, 2003) deals with the Hindutva ideology.

[20] The Terrorism Research Center (www.terrorism.com) has branded the RSS as a terrorist organization.

[21] “Call to desist ‘saffronisation’ of education,” The Hindu, August 28, 2001, describes opposition to the move: http://www.thehindu.in/thehindu/2001/08/28/stories/0428211r.htm.

[22] The fortnightly Tehelka on January 20, 2007, featured an article by Delhi University professor Apoorvanand criticising the new textbook brought in by the Rajasthan government: http://www.sacw.net/HateEducation/apoorvJan07.html.

[23] “A dialogue . . . of deeds,” an opinion piece in The Hindu by the Rev. Valson Thampu, a professor of the St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, refers to the prime minister’s call for a national debate on conversion: http://tinyurl.com/2o4cjh.

[24] “An agenda of Indianisation,” The Frontline fortnightly, October 28-November 10, 2000: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1722/17221150.htm.

[25] “Conversion is an Act of Violence” by Swami Dayananda Saraswati is available at http://www.swamij.com/conversion-violence.htm.

[26] “Dubious ‘Reconversion’ Movement Expands,” Compass Direct News, March 13, 2007:
http://www.wwrn.org/article.php?idd=24498&sec=51&cont=4.

[27] Communalism Combat, March 1999.

[28] Reported by the Pioneer newspaper on December 18, 2006.

[29] “Political Fears Spur Anti-Christian Violence,” Compass Direct News, October 4, 2006: http://tinyurl.com/3cunph.

[30] “Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India,” Paul R. Brass (Three Essays, 2006).

[31] “The tragedy of Ayodhya,” Frontline, June 24-July 7, 2000, deals with the issue of Ram Janmabhoomi: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1713/17130170.htm.

[32] An article on the debate about the uniform civil code is available at http://www.rediff.com/news/ucc.htm.

[33] “India’s ‘Anti-Conversion’ Laws Linked to Higher Persecution,” Compass Direct News, February 28, 2007: http://www.spcm.org/Journal/spip.php?article6959.

[34] “India’s Highest Court Accepts Christians’ Plea for Adoption Rights,” July 23, 2007, International Christian Concern: http://tinyurl.com/32hsuu.

[35] The report is available at http://tinyurl.com/y4hu8s.

[36] The Indian Express, July 6, 2007: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/203976.html.

[37] The Indian Express editorial page, April 22, 2003.

One Response to “Religion Reporting in India”

  1. sampaul Says:

    Vishal

    A very true and good analysis of the religion reporting in India.

    Sam

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